Done Pompei already? Or maybe looking for something equally entrancing but more compact and less overwhelmed by tourists? The shadow of Vesuvius casts you a choice… even if none were offered to so many local residents in AD 79!

The town of Erculano hosts the beautifully excavated Herculaneum. Experts have identified the different fates of Pompei and Herculaneum residents during the same disaster. The former were hit by ash and rocks while the latter were incinerated by molten mud slides. This matters because it underpins the different qualities of what’s preserved between the two sites.

At Pompei, you have a larger town with a sense of public spaces and private lives. Whereas Herculaneum is distinctively exhibiting a smaller, more intimate sense of private residence. On arriving at the site, you have the benefit of elevation to take in the panoramic view…

Getting down into the excavated ruins you initially experience very much the street view of the former bustling port…

But then there is the distinct detail that provides that home view of private lives lived in the shadow of what would become a short-lived terror…

But finally, there is the emotional view, what also distinguishes Herculaneum from Pompei… hundreds of preserved skeletons at the lowest level of the site portray a vision of the horror, as many residents attempted to shelter at the port side stores from the advancing mud that would engulf and ultimately preserve their remains…

Until we speak again, was that a perfectly preserved cat, or simply the chilled out undercarriage view?

Now, I’m sure there was a toilet around here somewhere!

A fishy tale

Like many humans, fish present me with something of a personal dilemma… sometimes they can look so damn good, but alas, in the end, you just have to follow the lead of cats… and eat them. But, before you do, it helps to pay people who know how to present them for eating. This was certainly the least of our problems on a recent trip to southern Italy.

Take Naples, for example. It may well have been a city totally consumed by its recent football success as Italian champions for the first time since the Maradona infused party of 1990.

But not even that could diminish the opportunity for several acquatic species to leap onto our plates in search of a fulfilling end of life! Even if it was a wobbly table in a back street port district car park. Fried calamari, octopus, grilled calamari, fully tooled-up squid, and more docile looking swordfish were simply leaping off the menu to accompany the local white wine.

Taking a boat trip across the Bay of Naples around the Amalfi coast in order to maybe witness dinner in its more usual and natural habitat proved a futile challenge. Ultimately, the coastline is far too distracting.

In the end, it seems the best place to see these fellas is on a plate a few hundred metres above sea level. Ravello provided the ideal place to sample some more octopus. The location also provides breathtaking views out across a coast that could well be the starting point of your dinner’s own journey.

Meanwhile, a boat trip back around the peninsula to Sorrento offers plenty of man-made structures from which you may wish to indulge in dangling your ‘string on a stick’ trap for catching the more stupid of local fish.

While the adventurous were finding ways to source their own sustenance, we preferred to respect the more interesting and apertising welcome offered by a trinity of tuna, grilled calamari, and swordfish pasta

Until we speak again, carnivores need not worry. Should you drift on by the amazing coastline of southern Italy, you will be catered for with the same vigour and probably a collective sigh of relief from the local fish population!

Getting to the ‘Old’ part

OAP… bollocks. Even Juno would have recognised that the recent letter indicating eligibility for a State Pension was sent to the wrong address. In her estimation, her servant might be an idiot, but surely not an old idiot!

But, hold on… this getting old malarkey maybe isn’t so bad after all! It all depends on where you get to do it, I guess. You may have the misfortune to be in a damp sleeping bag spread out on the gravel floor of a farm out building, with a tractor tyre for a pillow. Hang on… that was a previous European tour in the destitute years of teenage invincibility after a never-ending Austrian thunderstorm somewhere near Saltzburg. Whoever said that was a welcoming country to visit?

Now that the seventh decade has reached its own middle age years, it’s time to welcome an unwelcome milestone with a bit more style! A villa apartment with a fabulous view will do…

Particularly if they make their own wine and olive oil!

Then, all that’s needed is a restaurant with great food and a table with one of the best views in the world…

Until we speak again, Ravello high above the Amalfi coast in Southern Italy is as good as any place to set the tone for the older years.

NOLA: Distilling the essence

Born on a bayou, emerging out of a swamp, frequently in the eye of a hurricane, situated between the mighty Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain, largely lying at or below the natural water table, wondering when the levees will break… (there are quite a few ideas for songs here already!). But, why would anyone visit, let alone live, in a place like New Orleans?

The French came here and lay the foundations for a Quarter. The Spanish came here and added to the architectural diversity. Creoles and Cajuns emerged here bringing their separate and unique influences on the diversity of Louisiana cuisine, amongst many other characteristics. Africans were brought here and contributed so much to a culture of celebration, emanating from Congo Square (now part of Armstrong Park). And, the British came here looking to expand an empire only to be defeated by the combination of a local bureaucrat and a pirate (Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte)!

Jazz music was born here, and exported to the rest of America and beyond as a young Louis Armstrong followed in the footsteps of his early mentors. It continues to thrive through virtuosity in the Preservation Hall, the clubs and bars throughout the city, and street musicians and marches.

The range of cuisine alone, from diners to fine dining, takes up many accompanying posts on this blog. From shrimp & grits to turtle soup, from crawfish etouffee to seafood gumbo, from boudin sausage to beignets… leave your mental recipe book behind because this is a whole new language!

How do you capture the essence of such a complex city of people, history, architecture, food, and music? And I haven’t even started on the quaint old streetcars on St Charles Avenue, Steamboat Nachez on the Mississippi, or the voodoo influences and iconic above-ground cemeteries, that include the tombs of notables such as Marie Laveau (the Witch Queen of New Orleans).

Well, I guess I need to sit down and think about that over a tipple of something special. The French Quarter just happens to be the home of the cocktail, with Sazerac being established in a pharmacy by Antoine Peychaud in 1838 on Royal Street. If I were to distil the essence of New Orleans perhaps that’s it right there in a glass! Just make sure you have an expert like my good friend Tom Seay (follower of this blog) to perform the ritual of creating your drink!

Until we speak again, New Orleans is a melting pot of influences, ideas, atmosphere and experiences, of cultures, a complex range of local cuisines, the birthplace of great musical traditions. Depending on your personal tastes and who you are it’s a friendly and welcoming place. You can take it or leave it, because essentially…

How to eat a whole city!

Step 1: You’re on holiday, so leave the usual routines behind. This isn’t just about casually checking what you’ve got in the fridge. You’re travelling to a special place, so remember you’re eating for your home country’s reputation… go for it and don’t hold back!

Step 2: Choose somewhere that’s well worth devouring… somewhere that offers a mind boggling range of culinary delights, whether you have any idea what you’re eating or not.

Step 3: If you’re including posh dining joints, check in advance if you need to book tables or not. You don’t want to create an international diplomatic incident when you turn up hell bent on eating only to be asked if you’ve booked a table. You know you’re eating the food, not the table… but if you’ve already been drinking UK-style traveller industrial quantities of alcohol your hosts may not appreciate any nationalistic cliches or sense of humour.

Step 4: Do some prior research and plan a route (however rough it may be). Don’t start with the first eating joint on the edge of town and work your way along the street. You may find you’re on a foreign version of Cardiff’s Caroline Street… where everything is a local variation of chips+!

Step 5: Snacking between meals is fine… you’re on holiday for ‘F’s sake’!

Step 6: Do some prior research on establishment opening times. If you’ve had the aforementioned UK pisshead level of lotion, don’t turn up to evening restaurants in the morning and brunch places later in the day!

Step 7: If you find yourself in New Orleans this is how to do it…

Who needs breakfast when brunch provides timing that better accommodates last night’s festivities? Two Chicks Cafe in the Warehouse District provides a perfectly good starting point to the day, particularly if you want to line your stomach with Papa’s French Toast with a side of Bacon.

Keep Google Maps to hand, as this place is a well disguised challenge for the casual unprepared customer. Don’t forget to have the freshly squeezed OJ as a psychological trick for believing you’re doing something healthy to kick off the festivities.

Don’t delay, you’ve a relatively short walk to the Streetcar Cafe on St Charles Avenue where something called Biscuit & Gravy will mess with any nonAmerican gastronomic sensibilities. Also, remember to wear loose clothing, as most American menus are designed to promote a larger version of yourself on exit than the one that entered!

The Palace Cafe on Canal Street is conveniently just around the corner, as you don’t want to be wasting too much time travelling between courses, do you? The signature Crabmeat Cheesecake can always be washed down with the addition of Turtle Soup… but remember to keep room for the Catfish Pecan. After all, it’s not every day you get such an opportunity.

Dessert anyone? You might need something to complement that strange French White Wine you’ve never heard of before! Louisiana Strawberries with whipped cream or a combination of Ice Cream flavours may help to settle down any initial rumblings from the digestive region.

You’re on the boundary of the French Quarter, so perhaps now would be as good a time as any to visit the historic (well, by US timescales) The Court of Two Sisters!

Buffet layouts don’t normally float my boat at any time of day… something about preferring food freshly cooked to order. But, a historic entrance to a courtyard setting like this with a Jazz trio accompaniment just demands that certain personal culinary judgements be left outside and picked up again on departure.

A classic Mimosa provides a basis for the relaxed enjoyment of a cold buffet followed by a hot buffet of Louisiana standards of grits, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee … not forgetting to top up your Turtle Soup levels at the same time.

Now may just be the time for a good walk… so I suggest a hike across the French Quarter to Bywater along the banks of the Mississippi River to Elizabeth’s where Korean Brussels Sprouts will provide a gear change before you get back to another variation on the Catfish theme with something entitled Bayou Breakfast. A side of Callas (me neither? but it’s worth a re-visit) will no doubt further extend your culinary range… nothing like some deep-fried concoction with a sugary maple syrup for accompanying any type of egg with your catfish (you’re in New Orleans, so of course, this all makes sense… well, to the locals at least!).

At least now you’re geographically out on a limb, and probably physically wondering whether your limbs are going to support your weight. So a lengthy walk back in the direction of the city should be quite timely. Do find one of the few benches in Crescent Park if you need a lie down for a minute or two.

After a brief rest reviewing your evening meal bookings, why not stop off for a chocolate heaven interlude at Piety & Desire over in the Garden District? The produce is locally sourced and handmade, and what a selection… even including the green one with a layer of duck fat! As you may have read in a previous post… the cappuccino isn’t that bad either.

Ready for an evening meal? It’s probably best to head over to the Treme/7th Ward boundary for a shift of gear from Deep South US to European fayre. The Green Room offers up an eclectic mix of Slavic originated dishes in a bar/restaurant vibe. The Blini Trio starter is of particular note, as it provided a mixed burst of different tastes with a much needed lightness compared to the entree Slavic Sampler. Kielbasa, kapusta, golubtsy, and pierogi all provided interesting flavours, but this meal is definitely a heavyweight designed for the demands of a colder climate.

Back in the French Quarter, a beguiling range of options are on offer, but if we’re gradually climbing a gastronomic ladder, it’s possibly going to be Orleans Grapevine Wine Bar & Bistro for the next stop. It seems timely to go for an Arugula Salad at this point in the day, at least as an appetiser before diving into that Roasted Duck Breast and Lamb Chop combination of main dishes. The local Louisiana Strawberries make a second appearance decoratively accompanying a Creme Brûlée, and an after dinner Port for no other reason than I’m being coaxed against my better judgement into the world of desserts.

Muriel’s on the corner of Jackson Square just along from the cathedral brings us back to some quintessential Louisiana dishes done in what claims to be an historic setting (Note to locals: history to a European goes back further than last month!). Boudin Egg Rolls provided a delicately spiced appetiser that made me wonder why it’s taken me so long to sample this dish. The Oregon Pinot Noir complemented this dish perfectly. As for Shrimp & Grits, this is a dish of ubiquitous familiarity, but here it’s done with a delicate twist that adds a higher level of subtlety, adding some much-needed flavour to the grits. Switching to a German Riesling was definitely a good move with this entree.

Until we speak again, still got room for more? I hope so, as you need to check out the previous Dining Fine NOLA-Style post, because August Restaurant on Tchoupitoulas Street in the Central Business District offers the pinnacle of the New Orleans eating experience (other pinnacles may be available!).

If you’ve eaten all of this in one day the only question that comes to mind is… what’s wrong with you? I guess you’ll be too full to answer that one, and are likely to be focused on what’s for brunch tomorrow!

St Charles Avenue

Probably the best street in America. Why? Take the quaint old Streetcar the full length (and also the sharp right on to the terminus along Carrollton Avenue), then get the next one back, and I’m sure you’ll agree!

The hustle and bustle at the Canal Street terminus in the centre of the city gives way to a range of restaurants and bars, including the Streetcar Cafe… the ideal spot to plan and start your discovery of the avenue.

Continuing on the streetcar through the Garden District towards Uptown, the best pub in America is located on the left… a visit is highly recommended but best left until your return journey, lest you enter and find yourself entranced…

… by a beer infused with Malbec and Blackberries and a small plate of Chilli Glazed Brussels Sprouts!

The residential architecture becomes increasingly dramatic…

Tulane and Loyola Universities face across the avenue to Audubon Park… a place for quiet contemplation at the Meditation Garden

Where St Charles Avenue turns into Carrollton Avenue, you could stop off to call in for a beer at the traditional Cooter Brown’s Tavern… but don’t stay too long, don’t forget you have the Avenue Pub to visit on your return journey!

There are plenty of diners in the area for those not burdened by the duty of maintaining the profits of the alcohol industry. Satsuma Cafe on the parallel Maple Street is recommended…

And when you reach the terminus on Carrollton Avenue there will always be a streetcar waiting to take you on the return journey.

Until we speak again, how does your street match up? How many pieces of genuine historical interest, dramatic residences, universities, green spaces, and pubs can you list? None at Chez Juno in Cardiff… so I’m adopting St Charles Avenue (at least in vivid memory).

A Gumbo of Experience

New Orleans has always been a down and dirty in your face kinda place. Debauchery, moral corruption, and a sense of danger have been at the heart of the experience for nigh on 300 years. The food, the music, the people, the culture. It’s a marmite sort of place; you either love it or you don’t, there’s no in-between.

Then, there’s Gumbo… the official Louisiana State cuisine, which essentially refers to a stew. There isn’t just one kind of gumbo… it’s what you make of the experience. Likewise, New Orleans is what you want to make of the experience… but generally, it’s an open celebration of life.

For me, on a 5th visit, it’s looking for more of the new whilst hoping some of the best of the old is still there (post-Covid)! Maybe that’s why this visit can best be summed up as chocolate alligators in search of a good cappuccino. Read on… it still probably won’t make any sense, like New Orleans… who knows? This determined looking guy had more than chocolate on his mind!

Finding a good cappuccino in the US, well… needles and haystacks come to mind. Cafe Beignet is an institution with new locations open across the city. They say certain things really should be tried before you die… then again, trying certain things may hasten on the demise. Believe me, the search for a good cappuccino doesn’t start here! And, as the powdered sugary topping of a deep fried coating of a tasteless gloop… this does take some beating. However, in the Cafe Beignet v Cafe du Monde debate (does such a challenge really trouble the world?), the latter plumbs even greater depths, in my opinion!

Surely, I could rely on my good friends at Who Dat Coffee Cafe…over in the Marigny district of the city, way off the usual tourist radar. They’ve always been my go-to place for a relatively good cappuccino, and the humorous welcome bodes well. Unfortunately for me, now they want to spoil the experience by insisting on plastic cups! What’s that about? The Rueben sandwich certainly demanded a better side.

Perhaps technology will provide the answer. Googling best cappuccino brings up the interesting sounding Streetcar Cafe on St Charles Avenue. The promise did manage to beat the standard fayre so ubiquitous of anywheresville, but that’s a low bar. Then again, the experience did offer an opportunity to sample that strange (to us foreigners) breakfast of Biscuits & Gravy! Meanwhile, the search continues…

My erstwhile native US travel companion kept up her nearly 3-decades attempt to persuade me of the tempting and strangely sweet world of desserts… my resistance to which would be something Juno would be proud of. But, unbeknownst to me, this just maybe the gateway to good coffee… who’d have thought it?

On a planned stroll around the Garden District, she witnessed what looked like a local chocolate emporium, and it just happened to come with a side of coffee making. Piety & Desire source and make their chocolate ingredients locally with loving detail. With such admirable principles, they also get their coffee from neighbouring fellow purveyors who happen to roast their own beans on site. Heaven, if it exists at all, can be found in strange and quiet quarters, and that delightful green piece of chocolate includes duck fat… but no alligator fat, apparently!!!

Fortified with chocolate… I mean a good cappuccino… I’m ready to take on a range of what this unbelievable city has to offer. I tried a few of those dreaded desserts (but the incriminating evidence that I actually enjoyed the experiences shall remain under wraps). In order to possibly satisfy my quirkier side, how about some art… galleried as only they can down in the Bywater district:

Alligators… chocolate or otherwise, on the Swamp Tour had a habit of showing as much interest in the floating can of people as we did of them:

Though, as the second photo suggests, some had already had their fill of cappuccino for the day… any later than 1.00 pm and rumour has it they don’t sleep as well at night!

Then again, peace and harmony along the Lafitte Greenway through Mid-City and Treme helps to burn off some of the inevitable calorie intake more usually associated with visiting almost anywhere in New Orleans:

Until we speak again, there was an obvious solution to any of us influenced enough by levels of alcohol consumption… at the tried and trusted Avenue Pub on the wonderful St Charles Avenue… a Coffee Stout. The problem is that at 9.3 per cent, a few of these cause mobility issues… if you catch my drift. And, yes, please do catch my drift!

P.S. No alligators were hurt or injured in the making of this production! Chocolate, on the other hand, was consumed in a range of weird flavours!

To Juno’s Dismay

The long deceased inspiration for this 10-year blog could just be spinning in her grave… if such a thing existed. For here I am, back in New Orleans sampling Catfish in some of its diverse yet delicious presentations. And I’m really fussy and limited in the types of fish I generally eat.

I can sense Juno’s paw tapping me on the chin as she informs me that cats are cats, superior in all ways; fish are fish, purely for eating. But mixing the two is strictly, well, unusual to say the least.

First stop was ‘Elizabeths‘ in the Bywater district of the city. This is a venue not visited in previous sojourns to the Big Easy, so this was definitely on the list of new places to try on this occasion.

How do you like your eggs with your Catfish? Not a question I had anticipated tackling until arriving here! Then there is a side of something called Calas, which has the ability to stop you in your tracks and ask you how you’ve lived this long without sampling such a delight. This is a Creole deep fried rice, eggs, and sugar mix complete with honey-infused dip. Not for the calorie-obsessed diner… but then again, hardly anything in New Orleans is!

The next variation was provided by a place frequented as a favourite whenever I mosey on down the Mississippi…the Palace Cafe. We can’t avoid the signature dish of Crabmeat Cheesecake, this time with a side of Turtle Soup. OK, I get your indignation… but these guys exist for a reason, right? But the Catfish Pecan, now, that’s a new taste altogether. The sweetness of the pecans perfectly complimented the savoury flavour of the Catfish.

Look out aquatic culture… I might need to reappraise my relationship to eating fish… which is something I’m sure Juno would have delighted in, except for the suspicious influence of cat-infused fish dishes.

Until we speak again, the Doobie Brothers song comes to mind… Catfish are jumping, that paddle wheel thumping… Black Water for those of you unacquainted. Check out the track, as it captures New Orleans, Louisiana, very succinctly.

Dining fine NOLA-style

Sometimes… things can just take the wrong direction. Take eating… New Orleans style, for example. As a native of Cardiff, I could think… wow, an eating sensation has just arrived from New Orleans right on my doorstep…

I could try to think that! But, then again, let’s see what happens if you have the good fortune to travel in the opposite direction. August might be more recognisable as a distinct month of the year… but on Tchoupitoulas Street in New Orleans, it just happens to be a place where real New Orleans fine dining takes place all year round.

No Southern Fried Chicken burgers to be seen here. After all, the wine selection alone demands that something a little more, let’s say, refined, should be adorning plates.

When the meal starts with a hollowed egg of chef’s special artfulness of the day, you just know you’re about to experience something that mere cooks couldn’t dream of.

This is where Black Truffles take the measure of Giant Lump Crab, with just a hint of Parmesan, in a dish entitled Gnocchi black & blue… designed to slow down your pace of life and focus your attention, and give thanks for the invention of taste buds!

This is where Escargot come to play delightfully with Wild Mushrooms… hermaphrodite cuisine at its most delicate.

As for the Duck… Huey, Dewey, and Louie, look away now. This is a dish that comes three ways, and is definitely not for the faint-hearted if youre put off by the idea of Foie Gras. But it does come with something called Bayou Cora Grits… ? me neither, but it was a delightful accompaniment all the same.

And the Grouper most definitely comes with a delicate, flaky meatiness that no fish in its rightful mind should dare to claim! Just to compliment this piece of aquatic genius, you might just find a hint of grapefruit backed up by a Persilade of parsley, garlic, and herbs… ? me neither, but I’d come back for more of the same whenever you invite me!

Until we speak again, much of the above required a very delicate German Reisling, but that duck also stood up and demanded a glass of an Oregon Pinot Noir before it gave up its deliciousness.

If your first thought is how small the portions of food are on such wide plates, your quality to quantity ratio is completely out of sync… don’t forget to take your shovel of choice to the nearest food buffet or the newly opened Popeye’s in Cardiff!

65 not out

Cricket is such a tedious game… which is why you can read on, as this post (like all the others) has nothing to do with the summer sounds of leather on willow… yawn, yawn. No, this is about achieving a so-called milestone. Though the effects of ageing can make it seem like a millstone on some days!

The first decision on approaching such a milestone is where to achieve it? Somewhere I’ve never been before might be a good idea. Having arrived at 40 in New York, 50 in Key West, 60 in New Orleans, my travelling companion made it very clear that America was off the agenda! OK, Europe it is, and having taken some expert advice, Mallorca it would be.

After all, it needed to be somewhere with well established bathing traditions…

And, a clear view of where your food is being prepared goes a long way to establishing culinary confidence…

With an abundance of interesting places the capital city of Palma provided a welcome introduction…

A wooden train set provides a unique way to get to from Palma to the place of choice for the actual milestone…

Port de Soller provided the perfect backdrop for ending the ‘When I’m 64’ Beatles year-long soundtrack…

An important celebration demands an experience of quality, and so I trusted online reviews of a restaurant 5 minutes walk away around the stunning bay…

And the choice of Agapanto certainly didn’t disappoint…

Until we speak again, Palma & Port de Soller are high on the list for must-do return visits. That milestone has taken 8 months to report! With OAP status fast approaching I must fly, in more ways than one…